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Water polluters to face justice in civil courts

1 August 2011

Farmers in England and Wales who wilfully or repeatedly contaminate waterways could face swifter justice and harsher penalties following a recent change in the law.

Since January 4 this year, the Environment Agency has the power to use the civil courts to prosecute polluters, rather than having to rely on the more time consuming and costly criminal law route, says AHDB Potatoes Chris Steele.

“There are several advantages to anyone wanting to prosecute,” he explains. “You don’t have to have so much evidence, and it is cheaper and quicker to bring the case to court and to hear it.

“And it might come as a surprise to some to find out that the fines can be much stiffer, up to a maximum of £250,000 compared with just £25,000 under criminal law.”

The change, introduced under the Water Resource Act, will give officials more teeth to enforce the Water Framework Directive across all industry, says Chris.

But few growers are likely to face prosecution as a result of their activities, he adds. “Only serious cases or where polluters try to hide the fact they have broken the law are likely to end up in court.

“The vast majority of pollution incidents are accidental and often fairly minor, and the Environment Agency has tended to be pretty pragmatic about these in the past.”

Sediment, pesticides and fertilisers are the most common causes of agricultural water pollution, and only small quantities are required to breach EU drinking water standards, he notes.“The agency is likely to continue offering guidance, and advice is its main approach.”

However, Environment Agency officials have a range of other enforcement powers, including a range of civil sanctions introduced in April 2010 that they can employ. These consist of:
• Compliance Notice – a written notice requiring actions to comply with the law
• Restoration Notice – a written notice requiring steps to be taken, to restore harm
• Fixed Monetary Penalty – a low level fine (£100 for an individual and £300 for a company) for a minor offence
• Enforcement Undertaking – a voluntary agreement to take corrective action
• Variable Monetary Penalty – for more serious offences, up to £250,000
• Stop Notice – a written notice that requires an immediate stop to the polluting activity.

The key point to remember is that if a pollution incident does occur, farmers must not try to hide it, Chris advises.

“Inform the Environment Agency straight away, otherwise you are far more likely to face prosecution and end up with a much stiffer punishment.”

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